I pulled up at the red light on my beat-up old Suzuki GS 500 to wait for traffic that never came. A police car pulled up next to me. There were few other vehicles on the roads on Day 25 of the Spanish national Covid-19 lockdown. Ambulances, the odd bus and taxi, food trucks, takeaway delivery scooters and private cars carrying essential services workers on their way to and from work were all you saw these days.
Although I had permission as a volunteer delivering medicine from pharmacies to incapacitated clients, I was still nervous. I had been checked by the police, asking why I was out of my house already on this delivery – and I was to be checked again before I got home.
Around 15,000 Spanish police officers have been infected with Coronavirus. Some have died. In a spirit of camaraderie, I turned to the car to give the officers a nod of thanks for the work they had been doing. I didn’t get one back.
The officer in the driver’s seat had had the thousand-yard-stare and had been crying. His colleague in the passenger side had his seat slightly reclined and his eyes half-closed. He looked exhausted. I’ve only seen a police officer cry once before. I’d been a prosecutor long enough to know that cops don’t cry much. If they do, they’re in the wrong job. But this is Spain and this now.
‘Un día más – Un día menos.’ ‘One day more – One day less,’ are the words which my favourite radio programme begins with these days.
For the last 25 days I hadn’t been further than the local supermarket, a five-minute walk from my apartment, or the fresh food market, a ten-minute walk. The masked and gloved shop assistants and check-out chicks didn’t know they would be on the front lines of a pandemic when they signed up. Wine supplies are running low. There’s plenty of cava, Spanish sparkling wine, though. No one feels like celebrating anything much these days.
A university where I teach said that the pharmacy association was looking for volunteers to deliver medicine. I hesitated a day before deciding to put my hand up. If I am gloved and masked there is little risk. I may have had it already. I was a bit fluey in late February and early March. I even went to my doctor for my annual check-up blowing my nose and coughing. She took my blood pressure and booked me in for a routine blood test in early April. The possibility of it being Covid-19 wasn’t even discussed. That was then. My test has been postponed, and the government clinic is closed except for emergencies. I can’t get tested now as I have no symptoms and there are not enough tests to go around.
The first job was thirty kilometres away up the coast towards the Costa Brava in a town called Matarò. Normally too far, but this was a good excuse to get out of my small apartment for some hours and to get on the motorcycle again after more than three weeks.
The Barcelona City Council had been phasing out old vehicles. 1 April was the final date that motorcycles like mine had to be off the road in the city, except for nights and weekends. I was planning to buy a scooter but keep the old, but well-serviced Suzuki, to enjoy the Pyrenees and coast roads. It didn’t occur to me as I hopped on that day that I may be in breach of this new rule, but I have since learned that its enforcement, like so many other things, and many lives, has been postponed until after the State of Alarm ends.
The air is clearer now. I can feel it in my lungs. On the street outside my local supermarket, if I stand on my toes, I get a clear view of Mediterranean and the nearby Collserolla hills from the same spot. Wild animals are taking over the cities. Venice gets wild dolphins. Barcelona gets wild pigs.
Public transport in the city is free for the duration of the crisis but I am lucky enough not to need it. I can teach online. I miss my students. Young, intelligent, dynamic, international – they’re fun to teach. I don’t ask them how their families are. I just get straight into it. Better not to know. My university posts obituary notices usually announcing the death of a colleague’s parent. There are more than usual. Three just last week. At street level this is a quiet pandemic. Sterile. The ill are quietly taken away in ambulances. If you’re lucky you’ll get a respirator. You’ll get sedated. You’ll fade away.
But the TV shows the hospitals are overwhelmed. Like something out of M*A*S*H. Plastic surgeons are now working in ICU wards. Final year medical and nursing students rushed to the hospitals for their baptism of fire. Doctors and nurses are dying too.
The freeway was quiet. I had to pay at the automated toll booth Catalans despise so much. At least now the public health line is free now. Apart from a few speed demons, who I guess just can’t help themselves, most people drove cautiously. You don’t want an accident. Inside the back of an ambulance or in hospital is the last place in Spain you want to be right now. My friends had their first baby on Day 13. In and out of hospital within less than twenty-four hours. This is Spain now.
An orderly queue of people, many of them immigrants with concerned but unpanicked expressions, were waiting their turn outside the pharmacy and the nearby international money transfer office. Signs taped to the pharmacy windows said, ‘WE HAVE NO GLOVES. WE HAVE NO ALCOHOL. PAY WITH CARD PREFERABLY. ONLY THREE PEOPLE INSIDE AT A TIME. WAIT UNTIL WE OPEN THE DOOR.’
The three young women working there were behind the counters now fitted with improvised plastic screens. They wore face masks beneath their face shields. They wore latex gloves and handed me a bag of medicines, an electronic payment terminal and the address of the client who lived around the corner. It was a lower income area and he was an old man who lived alone in a rundown block of flats. His was on the third floor. There was no elevator. He gave me a large bar of chocolate for my trouble, which I suppose was for Easter although it didn’t feel like it.
I took some minor detours on the way back home. Although not quite swimming weather, Barceloneta – the city’s famous beach district – would have been packed with walkers, skaters, and cyclists on such a day as Day 25. Now, unless they were delivering food or medicine or walking the dog, they could be fined or even arrested. Just flotsam and jetsam and seagulls with the beach all to themselves.
The numbers continue to rise. In Catalonia one in two-hundred people infected. One in a thousand dead. That’s the official figures. So far. Nursing homes decimated. More than decimated. One third of their occupants dead. Some abandoned by their carers. My friend’s mother was in one. She didn’t make it. Her son works at the same hospital she died in. He didn’t get to say goodbye. Another friend lost her aunt.
The Sagrada Familia had no worshippers this Semana Santa, this Holy Week. Just dog walkers and takeaway delivery riders maintaining their social distancing as they waited for their orders outside the fast-food chicken joint. Was it just a year ago when my mother and I watched the processions in Sevilla? No one watched anything this year. In Milan Andrea Bocelli sang to an empty Duomo. I was there last year, too. In the throng.
It’s been six weeks since I touched anyone. A hearty handshake to an English friend on his way to the airport for his bachelor party. He arrived the day before to catch an early flight the next morning. We shared a bottle of wine over lunch (or was it two) and kicked on in the afternoon. Halcyon days. He’s marrying a Scotswoman and I was thinking about renting a kilt. It’s been postponed. My brother’s too. He now does trivia quizzes online every Friday which keep our spirits up.
I stood in the middle of an empty intersection in the Eixample district at 8pm as the people came to their balconies to clap and cheer those working in the hospitals, ambulances, cop cars, supermarkets, as food deliverers and, for that one day, me, as a thank you for our efforts. From the rooftop of an old building near my apartment, they play two songs a night at 8.30pm. People dance on their balconies then go back inside. That night it was Yellow Submarine and Love Is in the Air. I got home and shoved all my clothes including my jacket into the washing machine and had a long hot soapy shower, exhausted and trying not to weep.
I had a light dinner then thought about opening the thirty-two-year-old bottle of commemorative port I got when I was in the Army Reserve. Then I remembered I had already drunk it during the second week of lockdown when the weather was foul, and the death rate in Spain first climbed above one thousand. No point keeping it for someone else. That was the week of no sleep, listening to sad songs until dawn and taking out the empty bottles the next day. I opened a bottle of Rioja instead. The toll is now nearly twenty thousand.
Its Day 35 now. More than a full month. A full, long month. The longest month many of us have known. The bodies still mount but when there are only 500 dead a day it’s a good day. The blame game has already started amongst the politicians. We’ve moved on from winter to spring. The days are longer and bright and sunny. I go out on most of them to buy food. The market has strawberries. I walk on the sunny side of the street and take the long way home.
I’m downloading apps to my iPhone I’ve never considered before. My hair is getting longer. I’m gaining weight and getting a rash. I sometimes sleep on the sofa like I did when my stepfather was dying years ago. Some friends and acquaintances are a mess. Others are riding it out calmly. I’ve stopped watching the news. The government says most of us must stay at home until midnight 25 April, but who knows. ‘Un día más – Un día menos.’
Lorne Walker-Nolan is a lecturer at ESADE School of Law in Barcelona.
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